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Touched by a Village: My experience in Gudipadu Cheruva Village

sarah_sariSarah Tedford is an energy medicine practitioner from the Boston area with a background in human services, customer service and UA user testing. Sarah and her colleagues, Martin an instrumentation and robotics software engineer, and Janice, a math teacher, came to Amritapuri never having met Amma before, only hearing of her visits to Boston MA.  Curious about the humanitarian work of Amma and the research of Amrita University, the trio stayed in the ashram—their first time in India—and had the opportunity visit Gudipadu Cheruvu Village in Andhra and immerse in field work alongside AMMACHI Labs team member, Harish Mohan. Here is Sarah’s story.

India has something to offer to all kinds of tourists. But the real India can only be witnessed by visiting the various rural villages which bring you up-close to the indigenous cultures that are radiant for so many years. I spent two weeks in Gudipadu Cheruva Village in the state of Andhra, approximately six hours away from Hyderabad.

Learning measuring skills with Janice.
Learning measuring skills!

While in the village, I helped take photos to document the ring-making class and the beginning of the roof installation, photos to show the status/assessment of each toilet in progress, and extra help teaching how to measure and use the measuring tape as requested by one of the toilet building women and continued to encourage her measuring skills throughout the work days while we were there.  There were brainstorming sessions which led to prototyping a soap bag and bottle faucet as a handwashing station and facilitating a workshop for the village women to make the soap bags (like soap-on-a-rope).  We also experimented with building a clay oven to try western baking.  We also went to the tuition center a few times with Subramaniam and did some English and Math lessons with the students that were activity-based and game-based.

Women toilet builders' first ring!
Women toilet builders.

Before coming to the field, I had watched the complete set of toilet building training videos back in the lab when I volunteered with the MySangham team. It was so great to finally see it all happening live! We helped Harish, an AMMACHI Labs team member, check out the ring dye (mold/form) in advance of the ring making class to be sure it would work okay. I played photographer/documenter for the ring-making class, which is a solution unique to this village and not part of the training videos. I really enjoyed learning by watching the women learn how to make the concrete rings, slab jacking, inserting the rebar correctly, getting input from other villagers who do construction, and seeing them come up with solutions about where to make the rings and how to keep the ring from cementing themselves to the concrete road.

I was amazed at how welcoming the women were to us, and helping us learn a little Telugu. Language was one thing that was often a frustration for me – wishing to communicate some many things: asking them questions about themselves or answering questions about myself was so difficult. I am glad that by the end of my visit, I had learned 20-25 words in Telugu plus the numbers from 1-10! The women were so warm and friendly and many also picked up new English words quickly.

As rural women increasingly face health hazards of breathing smoke from wood burning stoves,2016-03-15_IMG_2457 AMMACHI Labs is researching different types of stoves and ovens. Harish had brought some videos which we watched about making clay ovens like those used in earlier centuries for baking. Based on that, he and I worked together to come up with a design model and then all of use scoped out a site to work and possible clay material with Subramaniam’s knowledge and translation help. It was a project taking several days since we were mostly working at the end of the day right before sunset so only 1-2 hours at best. We experimented with several iterations of the oven and were finally ready for baking.

One challenge was getting baking ingredients in Macherla and finding any recipe to fit what amounts we had for those ingredients. It came down to biscuit dumplings or chocolate drop cookies. We did not have enough ghee to try the cookies. I took one of the plastic cups and marked it as a measuring cup and chose a teaspoon and tablespoon, decided to use idly pans as trays for the biscuits, and prepared the biscuit dough. I did the best I could with substitutions for baking powder, butter/shortening and equivalent amounts. The idly stack was too tall really to slide well in and out and the coals actually kept catching fire again if wind blew into the oven, so a future baking attempt I would suggest push the coals all the way to the back of the oven and place the trays on the oven floor just at the edge of the door/oven junction, checking and rotating them frequently for even baking.

Baked biscuits

Overall I would say the baking was a success: yes we baked something and the oven worked but surely we need to work on improving the recipe! It was really fun designing and building the oven and mixing the clay by stomping it with our feet and having lots of villagers come look at it in various stages and a couple people showed us their places to get good clay.

Soap bags

Another innovative idea we’re looking into is soap bags which would function like soap-on-a-rope. This whole idea came about from a conversation between Harish, me, Martin and Janice. We were all talking about different configurations we had seen of handwashing stations and which led to remembering soap-on-a-rope product, which led to a mesh soap bag we had seen once which had me pull out a mesh bag from my luggage which became the model for this idea of taking an old scrap cloth to make a drawstring bag to hang a bar of soap. The next day I sewed a quick prototype from a piece of cloth I found blowing around the school yard, just to show the ladies.

2016-03-16_IMG_2459Harish had the idea of a workshop about how to make the soap bag and the rest of a handwashing station to show as well. The women can bring old fabric, a sari or tee shirt or towel – almost any fabric will do. Maybe the ladies will have a method of tying it rather than sewing. In Macherla, we got needles, thread, drawstring, and small soaps to put in each woman’s soap bag at the workshop. On 16th March morning, we held the workshop, getting started with showing the prototype and using gestures to outline the sewing pattern to Venkatamma, Baiyamma, Anjamma, and Muselamma while Idamma and Harish went around the village to bring other ladies to the tuition center. These four ladies then helped explain and demonstrate to the other women as they arrived and help give out the supplies. I guess we had around 20-25 women altogether with several children joining them. I think it well for the bag making. Anjamma and Venkatamma donated old saris to use for cloth.

All the women sewed in whatever manner was comfortable for them. After making bags, everyone gathered inside the tuition center, and soap was handed out. Then Janice demonstrated making a hand washing station using a water bottle with the bottom cut off and holes in the cap, turned upside to serve as a faucet with a soap bag hanging nearby. Venkatamma helped led the class through the seven steps of washing hands. Then some of the ladies went up to try it out. So that was a successful workshop day!

Safe water and sanitation are major issues for this village. I see men and women going back and forth several trips a day from the well to their homes with water jugs on their heads because the pumps aren’t working and they are concerned what will happen if the two remaining bore wells dry up. Such concerns bring a hyper-awareness around using resources efficiently or wastefully. With the very dry climate and lots of livestock to tend to, the villagers have a hard life.

Yet the people of this village are resilient and I can see that the efforts of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math and AMMACHI Labs are really making a difference: one village at a time. Learning about toilet building and living in Gudipadu Cheruvu village for two weeks let me see a real slice of India, that otherwise would be unknown to me.  It is very fulfilling to be helping in projects like AMMACHI Lab’s skills training because they are solving real issues that will improve people’s lives.  It was the most valuable time in my travels!

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